Shadows of the Damned is a strange, strange game. For example, you’ll soon grow accustomed to gates with the heads of crying babies on them, opened only by eyeballs, brains and strawberries; even more bizarrely though, other gates forgo screeching infants for the luminous purple pubic hair of demons. Indeed, by the time the end credits roll, you’ll have witnessed all manner of weird goings-on: you’ll have tittered each time you pass by a checkpoint and a small flying demon named Willy drops a flaming poo on the ground to save your progress, the game’s health packs take the form of Tequila and Absinthe and your wisecracking floating demon skull companion Johnson can transform into a motorbike, a torch and a variety of revolvers, shotguns and machine guns, the latter of which fire skulls and teeth respectively.
Following the adventures of Mexican demon hunter Garcia Hotspur – and that’s a demon hunter who happens to be Mexican, not a demon hunter who hunts Mexican demons, just so we’re clear – as he battles his way through the Underworld to retrieve his true love from the clutches of the realm’s evil Lord Fleming, Shadows of the Damned has the player dispatching all manner of gruesome demonic foes in a third person shooter that’s very much standard issue once you scratch beneath its warped surface. It doesn’t allow players to run and gun through its twisted environments, instead requiring the left trigger to be held down before you can even entertain the notion of firing a single shot; this slower paced approach being very reminiscent of Resident Evil 4 and 5, although unlike in those games you can actually move while aiming, albeit very slowly. Weapons are similarly standard for the most part, even if later upgrades do give these firearms some wacky abilities such as the machine gun being able to fire homing teeth and rip multiple locked-on targets to shreds within mere seconds.
The demons are undeniably the stars of the show here, with foes coming in a myriad of shapes and sizes and each variety presents the player with a different level of challenge; the standard demons generally explode in a crimson fireworks display of blood and giblets regardless of your weapon of choice, but the more powerful, less common demons are able to take substantially more punishment and as such require a variety of tactics if you hope to take them down. Admittedly, this generally amounts to shooting a conspicuous red area – more often than not located on the demon’s back or head – until your opponent falls down, but exactly how you need to go about pumping enough skulls or teeth into said red area differs depending on the demon. Unfortunately, this predictability and over-reliance on a well-worn shoot-em-up cliché extends into the boss fights, which are otherwise spectacular in their design and scale and certainly comprise the more memorable moments in Shadows of the Damned’s campaign.
Accompanying the solid shooting is the light / darkness mechanic, which sprinkles Shadows of the Damned with light puzzle elements; sometimes breaking up the action, sometimes merging with it. The darkness that blankets sections of the Underworld can only be fought off by either firing Garcia’s Light Shot at bleating goat heads – yes, seriously – hanging on walls or jamming your torch into giant hands that continuously spew out a constant stream of darkness. There’s a degree of haste required when solving these puzzles as well, because if you remain within the darkness for too long it will viciously eat away at Garcia’s health and quickly kill him. Furthermore, any enemy that’s inside the darkness will remain in a powered-up state even after the darkness has disappeared and as such cannot be harmed by your conventional firearms until you’ve cleansed them of their empowering darkness. The light / darkness puzzles are a welcome addition to the game because, as I mentioned earlier, Shadows of the Damned is otherwise by-the-numbers as far as shooters go.
As far as its front end is concerned, Shadows of the Damned’s visual style tends to help gloss over the fact that it’s far from the best looking game on the 360; it’s not bad by any means – some dodgy blood animation aside – but it very rarely exhibits anything that’s genuinely impressive. On a technical level though, I’m happy to say that Shadows of the Damned is solid throughout. Not once did I experience any frame-rate issues, visual glitches or game-breaking bugs. What will divide audiences, however, is the game’s puerile sense of humour. In case you hadn’t caught on earlier, Johnson and Willy are both references to male genitalia, something that Shadows of the Damned seems utterly obsessed with. Throughout my play-through, five minutes rarely passed without someone making a wise-crack about the old meat and two veg; even the standard revolver and its two upgraded forms are named the Boner, Hot Boner and Big Boner. Personally, this constant barrage of penis based puns made me chuckle, but that’s because I’m a sucker for juvenile humour. However, if that’s not your thing, Shadows of the Damned will be more akin to Hell than its twisted environments could ever aspire to be.
Shadows of the Damned is definitely one of the more peculiar Xbox 360 games I’ve played in the five years I’ve owned the console. Regrettably, both despite and because of this it’s by no means spectacular, mainly due to many of its unique aesthetic choices being merely that; they serve little purpose other than to either bemuse or amuse the player and as such the game doesn’t do enough that’s particularly special to rise above its peers in what we all know to be an over-saturated genre. At the very least it presents players with a perfectly solid and enjoyable third person shooter coupled with decent puzzles, but taking its brisk campaign – I finished it in around seven and a half hours; more skilled players could feasibly knock an hour and a half off that running time – and superficial design choices into account, I recommend that you either rent it for the weekend or wait for it to fall in price a bit before taking the plunge.
Verdict: On Target
Platforms available – Xbox 360, PS3
Version reviewed – Xbox 360